Officials to Map Bunong Land for Communal Titles This Month

Efforts to map the ancestral land of five ethnic Bunong communities that have long sought collective property titles in Mondolkiri prov­ince’s Pech Chreada district will fi­nally begin later this month, with funding for the project coming from the U.N., officials said on Thursday.

“We are working in collaboration with the U.N. human rights…program to help with the communal titling project in Bosra commune,” said Em Sopheak, provincial coordinator for the Community Legal Education Cen­ter, which will cooperate with land management officials and local authorities to demarcate and measure the land using GPS technology.

“The U.N. has already approved the budget for the new mapping, which will begin by the end of Feb­­ruary or early next month,” Mr. Sopheak added.

James Heenan, representative for the U.N. human rights office in Cambodia, confirmed that the U.N.’s Office of the High Commis­sioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) will be funding the project. “OHCHR is contributing costs for mapping of land for [the] five villages,” Mr. Heenan said in an email.

“Some villages in Bosra previ­ous­ly applied for communal land title[s] but they lacked the detailed mapping of the land, so will reapply with the appropriate documentation following the detailed mapping process,” he said, declining to disclose the cost of the land survey.

Though Bosra’s roughly 1,000 Bu­­­­nong families applied for communal land titles—which are designed to protect the land of the country’s ethnic minorities from outside development—more than a year ago, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s land-tit­l­ing scheme, an­nounced in June, sewed divisions in the community.

While some villagers opted to ap­ply for private land titles, others re­fused to have their land measured, fearing that they would lose their chance at receiving a communal title.

“There has been a lot of confusion in the last few months,” said Prak Neth, a Bosra villager. “But now, most of us, we understand that we cannot take both, so that’s why we are unified,” Mr. Neth said.

“We saw that we would be at a big loss if we took the private title…we tried very quickly to uni­fy,” he added.

Sek Sophorn, national project coordinator for the International Labor Organization, said on Thursday that the mapping project would  in­flate this sense of solidarity. “It’s very important to be able to defend their claim [to the land],” Mr. Sophorn said.

But Bill Herod, a longtime resident of Mondolkiri and adviser to lo­cal NGO The Bunong Place, said the com­munity—which for years has feuded with various rubber and timber companies encroaching on their land—should not celebrate too soon.

“I’m afraid that they have been jerked around so much, that some will be skeptical about the value of that [the mapping],” Mr. Herod said.

“If somebody finds oil or gold or bauxite on that land, it will be simply taken away. I think everybody knows that,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ben Woods)

© 2013, All rights reserved.